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21 July 2021

Why Dominic Cummings’s BBC interview was a resounding failure for him

The headlines produced by the former political strategist reflect worse on him than Boris Johnson.   

By Harry Lambert

There are some things people are well-suited to. And there are some things people are not suited to at all. Last night (20 July), Dominic Cummings chose to do something he has no fitness for. He has a unique talent for coming across unsympathetically on screen, yet has twice chosen to justify himself on air. Such is the man’s misguided self-confidence. 

In September 2019, when I profiled Cummings at length, talking to his family, school friends, and others, it was clear that he had two strengths. First, he knew how to run campaigns effectively, if duplicitously. Second, he could write entertainingly searing accounts of how and why governments fail. Neither of these qualities necessarily set him up well to steer a government. The question at the time was whether he would, inside No 10, prove to be a genius or a fool.

That question has long since been answered, but last night’s latest self-immolation shows how little Cummings understands about himself. As I wrote in 2019, there are really two Cummings: Cummings the thinker and Cummings the operator, and the former would not judge the latter kindly.

Last night, Cummings the operator – arrogant, scornful, alienating – attempted to prosecute his case against Boris Johnson. But he is a neophyte on air: easily encouraged to smile when he should be serious, to drift off topic, to make claims that detract from his central case and spark headlines he does not want. He is an appalling media performer, as Cummings the thinker would have bluntly put it, had he been watching himself.

As a backroom operator, Cummings proved skilful at getting his message out through the press. But today two headlines dominate – neither of which reflect badly on Johnson, as Cummings intended. The first is that Cummings considered leading a coup against the Prime Minister within days of the Conservatives’ general election victory in 2019, an idea which he seems not to realise makes him look deranged rather than powerful. The second key line is that Cummings thinks Brexit was quite possibly a bad idea. Both headlines resulted from him treating the interview as an “ask me anything” question and answer session. But frank responses on every topic are liable to distract.

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Cummings the self-aware thinker understood message discipline: we are all familiar with the banalities he crafted to win votes in 2016 (“take back control”) and 2019 (“get Brexit done”). But Cummings the failed operator proved too self-confident to ensure he stuck to his script: that Johnson – the man who didn’t care – was entirely unfit to be Prime Minister over the past 18 months.